Shanta Lee Gander’s Multimedia 'Dark Goddess' Exhibition Reclaims the Sacred Feminine | Art Review | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Shanta Lee Gander’s Multimedia 'Dark Goddess' Exhibition Reclaims the Sacred Feminine


Published March 16, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated March 16, 2022 at 1:40 p.m.

  • Photos Courtesy Of Fleming Museum
  • "Original Beserk"

Hecate is the Greek goddess of magic, the night, the moon, necromancy. The Morrígan is the Celtic goddess of transformation, witchcraft and war. Aphrodite is the Greek goddess of sexual love and beauty. These powerful females are among more than a dozen depicted — or rather, reimagined — for the exhibition "Dark Goddess: An Exploration of the Sacred Feminine" at the University of Vermont's Fleming Museum of Art.

In large-scale photographs installed around the museum's second-floor balcony, the goddesses stare directly at the viewer with self-assurance and perhaps daring. Even in the serene Marble Court below, visitors might feel compelled to look up. They should also go up for a closer examination and not resist the impulse to go within.

"Dark Goddess" is the work of Shanta Lee Gander, a writer, photographer, performer and educator who lives near Brattleboro. Museum text explains that she began working on the concept six years ago with an essential inquiry: "Who or what is the Goddess when she is allowed to misbehave? Who is the Goddess when she is allowed to expand beyond bearer of life, nurturer, and all of the other boxes that we confine women to within our society?"

Over a number of photo sessions — all outdoors in woodsy locales — Gander accrued a body of dramatic images in this theme. Shot in black and white, the tableaux are sometimes shadowy or dappled with light, effects that emphasize the subjects' mystery. The costumes, makeup, settings and attitudes, Gander noted in an interview, were full co-creations with her models.

Those shoots were undoubtedly fun, but they weren't just goddess cosplay. The intention of these images is to assert feminine agency and to subvert the "male gaze." The term, coined by feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey in 1975, means that women are typically presented in visual mediums from a heterosexual male point of view, thus rendering the female a passive object of male desire.

The exhibition handily shreds that perspective. As Jamie, the model for "Dark Aphrodite," puts it in text accompanying the photo, "A dark goddess is a woman who is empowered, who takes control, who knows what she wants."

"The exhibit is about gaze, being seen, not being seen," Gander said in an interview. "It's part meditation, part poetry, part snapshot."

And she did not stop at photographs. In collaboration with Fleming staff, the exhibition evolved into something more complex, both conceptually and materially.

Like many museums worldwide, the Fleming has been in a period of self-examination over its colonialist acquisitions and curatorial biases. Consistent with its commitment to what it calls "reckonings," the staff invited Gander to select items from the museum's permanent collection that she considered relevant to the exhibition's theme and to write alternative descriptions of those items.

Gander went one step further and imagined "conversations" among some of the chosen objects. Far from standard perfunctory explanations, her text is written as poetry or what she calls "quasi-fiction." For example, alongside the sculpture "Head of a Queen Mother," created centuries ago by an unknown artist in Benin, her text reads in part:

If what is spoken is blessing or curse,
what if there was no choice of a constructed utterance.
You don't know about such things
I was stolen and sold and sold and sold and sold then gifted as bride, and my value goes beyond the imagined...

A few of these pieces are displayed among Gander's photographs; others are assembled in a large vitrine in an adjacent gallery. This aspect of the exhibition is called "Object-Defied" to challenge the objectification of, particularly, items obtained in colonialist fashion. Such objectifying is, after all, an ethnographic variation on the (white, entitled) male gaze.

The exhibition also includes Gander's "Dark Goddess: A Short Film." Its 15 minutes of original and borrowed footage further explores "the human gaze, the female body, and what it means to dance along a continuum of sacred and profane," the Fleming text reads.

  • Courtesy Of Maclean C. Gander
  • Shanta Lee Gander

While "Dark Goddess" has a feminine slant, Gander eschews a binary view of identity, urging viewers to think of all "who have previously not been seen," she writes in museum text. "As it relates to my work, I hope that it inspires more inquiry, questions about the other selves that are several layers beneath the surface of a society that categorizes and boxes."

To that point, Gander observed in an interview, one of the individuals in her photographs does not identify strictly as male or female. All her models, however, expressed a feeling of reclamation, of taking themselves back, in their expression of a dark goddess. One of them, DonnCherie ("Crow Goddess"), also advocates embracing the dark.

"Sometimes, you need to embody the chaos, you need to be able to sit with the chaos, not [be] constantly chasing the positive, the 'No, I never let those things get to me.' No! They get to me. I get angry."

Viewers can listen to excerpts of Gander's interviews with her models in SoundCloud recordings on the museum's website. In her introduction to them, the artist expresses the hope that viewers (and listeners) might get in touch with their personal version of the dark goddess.

"As you listen, you may drift into your own thoughts about what any of this means for you," Gander says. "What is the dark goddess for you, and how would you connect it to your heritage or traditions? Have you encountered dark goddesses all your life and not realized it?"

Maybe the goddess is simply an unfettered self, free of the restrictions imposed by others or by society.

These are heady ideas to pack into a museum exhibition, but Gander and the Fleming have taken great measures to illuminate and demonstrate. One resource is a handsome catalog designed by Fleming assistant director Chris Dissinger. It includes Gander's photographs, brief interviews with her cocreators, images of objects from the collection with Gander's alternative texts, essays by UVM professor Emily Bernard and associate professor Vicki Brennan, and an extensive interview between the artist and Alice Boone, the Fleming's curator of education and public programs.

Gander and Boone's conversation, in particular, dives deep into the genesis and evolution of "Dark Goddess," as well as the two women's observations about museums, collections and authority.

In a phone call, Boone noted that Gander had participated in a Fleming symposium last year about the repatriation of objects and how artists might help with reimagining museums. "I see this as dismantling authority," she said. "I don't know that we can go back from this."

This is a vulnerable moment for museums, Boone acknowledged, but she believes that "we should lean into it." As an educator, she works with UVM classes that come to the Fleming. "I find the best ones are when the students ask all these questions and knock down some of the props ... of authority. Sometimes we talk about what we thought we knew, filling in all these questions with inquiries."

And "inquiry" is Gander's favorite word, Boone said with a laugh. Many visitors to the exhibition want to know what "dark" means, she said: "That's an inquiry Shanta wants you to ask. What I think she's trying to get at is, it leads you to right shadow work. It leaves you wanting to know more."

The following Q&A with Shanta Lee Gander was edited for clarity and length.

With a BA and MBA degree under your belt, you completed an MFA in poetry and nonfiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2021. I read that one of the projects was to write a memoir and that you took a nontraditional approach to it. One of your advisers said you are writing jazz. Is that memoir finished?

Yes, I finished the memoir. I came out [of the program] with four manuscripts. Two books of poetry: Ghettoclaustrophobia, which was published last year, and Black Metamorphosis [forthcoming]. The fourth is based on research I started doing on talking to Black artists about how transference happens — literary epigenetics. That's very much based on the scientific term and includes the environment of your ancestors. I took that idea from my thesis.

In a virtual Vermont Humanities discussion last year, you mentioned that when you were growing up in Hartford, Conn., some people deemed you "not Black enough." You also said, "How people are going to label things, that's not my problem." Given your inquiries about identity, could you speak to this?

My ideas about creativity are constantly shape-shifting. I've never felt like I belonged. Eventually I decided to say, "I'm just the toy that doesn't fit in the toy box." I'm not trying to make this a triumph narrative; it's just, I'm not going to go along with the group.

In a review of Ghettoclaustrophobia for Seven Days last year, Skye Jackson wrote, "Gander celebrates the power of Black creativity as an agent of change and light." Could you say more about that?

It's not just Black, but it's creativity — to remember one's access to imagination. Some people call this [period] a Black renaissance. I think that's dangerous. People have been doing creative things all along, even when they didn't have a name for it, like Harlem Renaissance. It's our birthright to discover our creative selves.

You performed the Lucy Terry Prince poem "Bars Fight" for the Brattleboro Words Trail in 2017. I read that you also lecture on Prince for Vermont Humanities. Is that still happening?

Yes, I still give lectures for both Vermont and New Hampshire Humanities.

In 2020, the Vermont Arts Council granted you the Arthur Williams Award for Meritorious Service to the Arts. Talk about what that meant to you.

I was so shocked and pleased! For so many years, I never won anything. [The award] reinvigorates and reinspires; it's such a great accolade.

Before we get into the Fleming exhibit, I want to ask you about your photography practice as a whole, over time. The portfolios on your website span straightforward nature shots to posed tableaux that suggest invented narratives. And yet most of them seem to have a sort of studied consideration. Can you talk about what you look for in image making generally?

When I was [traveling] in India, my camera was with me everywhere. I've also been a person who says I'm going to take a drive and see what I can find. In some cases, it's very planned, especially looking for abandoned places; I'll bring my camera equipment and spend a whole day.

How do we show the world ourselves through what we see through our lens? I don't mind being photographed, but I'd rather be on the other side.

In August 2021, you interviewed Shin Yu Pai for Ms. Magazine. Like you, she is both poet and photographer. You asked her, "Do you find that these different forms talk to each other?" I'm interested in your answer to that question.

Yes, they talk to each other. For example, as a dancer/mover, when I'm writing, especially poetry — if the page is a stage, how do you give the eye a rest, a pause? They motivate each other. While I was working on the film for "Dark Goddess," I was also working on a couple of manuscripts for poetry. Those rhythms went into the pacing [of the film].

I'm also interested in how your own narrative strategy changes when you move between visuals and language, other than the obvious differences in mediums.

My first language was writing. It was a very private, sacred thing. The more I discovered that I could put these things into the world, I've thought a lot about poetics and how that could inform life. How does it move? What is the rhythm? How do you think about words and breath?

Really good poetry gets inside you. When I try to write a really good poem — and I can't be the judge of that — I hope it arouses the senses, reminds people of [other] things.

  • Photos Courtesy Of Fleming Museum
  • "Dark Aphrodite"

Obviously, photography is about images, and poetry is about words. Yet both in their own ways can tell stories. In various settings, you've had a lot to say about storytelling. I wonder if you could say a little more for our readers. Why is storytelling important; why is it powerful?

Storytelling, alongside poetry — it's our earliest form of communication. It's really old. The whole idea of sitting around a fire and passing down stories. It begins with orality; even in the way we tell each other stories, let's have witnesses who can be in the creation.

There's something about storytelling that invites us to explore what scares us.

What would you say to someone who hides their stories, perhaps out of shyness or not feeling worthy or just never being encouraged?

Good question. What I say to a group of college kids is to ask questions, especially of themselves. Think about their power to engage with things they're encountering. In high school media studies, [I say], as a human being, how do you learn to think critically and use your imagination as part of that? Also to not take themselves too seriously and that anything can be material [for writing] — anything.

With writing, it's not about submitting it [for publication]. It just started with me — that I wanted someone to hear me, and that someone was a page.

Let's segue to "Dark Goddess: An Exploration of the Sacred Feminine." It's described in part as an "exploration of the human gaze, the female body, and what it means to dance along a continuum of sacred and profane." What has your own exploration involved? Could you elaborate on this pursuit conceptually?

I finally have an answer after all these years — I went back to my undergraduate major [in women, gender and sexuality].

About seven years ago, I started thinking about goddesses — maternal, good, benevolent — the ways we box women. Kali is a really interesting goddess in India. What if we explored women who ate their children, who killed people, who defied even gender categories?

In the fall of 2020, Caighla Manchester, one of my models/collaborators, kept pushing me to do another photo shoot. We went to a site that had water. I looked at all the images later, and it inspired me to pick up the camera again. I put out a call. It was a catalyst to put into action "Dark Goddess."

The first iteration at the Southern Vermont Art Center [in fall 2021] was just photos. The Fleming invited me to have an exhibition and also incorporate items from their archives. I knew I wanted to grow the exhibition, and the Fleming has been exploring repatriation of a Benin bronze. So, it was a mix of looking at items in collections and then thinking about how they interacted with my photographs.

The gaze was important — how did the gaze become developed in the first place?

The Fleming allowed me to write descriptions of the objects. The way I used the curatorial labels was a way of disrupting the gaze. The exhibition catalog calls this element [the objects and their alternative descriptions] "Object-Defied."

How would you describe this exhibition to someone who hasn't seen the photographs?

They are a culmination, on the surface, of a certain kind of ethnography. Also, there's an unflinching, unapologetic, direct gaze [from the women]. In a lot of the photos, the individual is staring right at you.

The photos are black and white; [the shoot] took place all outside, in nature. The women have self-created who they wanted to be in the photos, for example, She ... Killer of Bad Men; Hecate; the Crow Goddess. The viewer will encounter these different personas — a mix of photography and cultural anthropology.

These were collaborative; we spent a month or more talking about who they think the dark goddess is. Interviews with the women are added to the exhibition.

This project isn't done — I'll be shooting more collaborators this year.

Who are these women?

All of them are people I've known a long time — in one case since age 13. They're a range of individuals.

How were their costumes conceived? Does each represent a specific cultural narrative?

It was a shared vision. One hundred percent of them was a back-and-forth. Once it became a project, there was a lot of thinking about costumes and makeup.

Where did you shoot these scenes?

In Vermont and New Hampshire.

Why did you choose to shoot in black and white?

I felt like color would be distracting. I wanted no distractions but to play with shadow, the dappling of light.

I'd like to note for readers that some of the models are white, some Black. Presumably the "Dark" in the title doesn't refer to skin color or ethnicity.

Absolutely not. And I'm in talks right now to even challenge the gendered aspect of it. One of the "goddesses" in the show walks the line between genders.

What would you like viewers to understand about or take away from this exhibit?

I would love for people to think about how seeing is very trained. Eyes, very much like the tongue, salivate when they see something they want. How are we trained to see, and how does that have harmful or even dangerous implications?

Do you think that this exploration has a particular significance for the time we're living in?

Yes, definitely. One of the things I found interesting about the "great resignation" — it's sad that it took people so long to take themselves back, to say what they're not willing to do. But it's also a celebration, inspiring people to take themselves back, giving themselves permission.

I also think it's important to embrace the most taboo things, to take a risk, to be militant.

What's next for you?

I'd love to see "Dark Goddess" continue to grow. I plan to make another installment of the film. It will go somewhere else in New England.

"Dark Goddess: An Exploration of the Sacred Feminine" is on view through December 9 at Fleming Museum of Art, University of Vermont, in Burlington. Shanta Lee Gander joins UVM dance faculty Millie Heckler and student performers in an evening of storytelling and performance on Wednesday, April 13, 5:30 p.m. Free.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Talking Back | With photographs, artifacts and text, Shanta Lee Gander's "Dark Goddess" exhibition reclaims the sacred feminine"

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